Not the Usual Dead Kennedys

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Seeing the Dead Kennedys perform Wednesday at the Key Club without original singer and principal lyricist Jello Biafra was about as satisfying as watching Van Halen without David Lee Roth. But the Bay Area punk act’s casual, 45-minute performance with guest vocalist Brandon Cruz (from the hard-core band Dr. Know) did underscore the formative influence and enduring appeal of the 23-year-old group’s politically charged music.

Last year, guitarist East Bay Ray, bassist Klaus Flouride and drummer D.H. Peligro won a court case against Biafra, owner of the group’s longtime former label Alternative Tentacles, over payment of royalties and control of the band’s catalog. They then contracted with L.A.-based Manifesto Records to re-release most of their old recordings and a new concert album, “Mutiny on the Bay.”

It’s ironic that a group known for controversial, sardonic stances against censorship, propaganda, religious fundamentalism and commercialism should engage in such capitalistic squabbling. Still, despite Flouride’s few snide, oblique, references to Biafra’s recent free-speech lecture tours, Wednesday’s show was not an attempt to obliterate Biafra’s memory, but merely a celebration of the live collection.


A few people in the back yelled “Jello,” but most of the capacity crowd was enthusiastic. Authentically fast ‘n’ loud, the music was full of 1-2-3-4! punk drive, flavored with distinctive bits of garage and surf.

Cruz lacked the obnoxious wail and abrasive righteousness of Biafra, and his ebullience turned “California Uber Alles,” a critique of Jerry Brown-era left-wing conformity, into an un-ironic anthem. He was more believably sneering for such numbers as “Holiday in Cambodia,” but not even this tougher stance completely dispelled the karaoke-night vibe of it all.